Wednesday, December 12, 2012

[Fate Core] It's Skill Pyramids All the Way Down

I had a thought over on today on sub-pyramids of skills, so I figured I'd expand on it here.

Then I had further thought on the same thing, and suddenly it was skill pyramids all the way down. But we'll get to that soon enough.

First, let's say you have a skill that's important enough to your game that you really want to drill down into what it can do. Piloting, fencing, and magic are the first things that spring to mind for me. I'll go with magic, because the first two will entail a lot more thought and crunchiness. So we have a skill called Magic. It's about magic stuff.

Come up with a number of distinct things -- around 10 -- that the skill can do. "Distinct things" will vary depending on personal preference, game world, and campaign. For magic, I'd go with schools, and for the sake of convenience and my familiarity with the subject, let's say they're the nine schools of 2nd edition AD&D: Abjuration, Conjuration, Divination, Evocation, etc. (They used these in 3.X too, right? Anyway. That's neither here nor there.) I'm calling these specialties for now.

You also have these specialties in a pyramid, with an apex equal to your Magic skill. So if you have Fair (+2) Magic, your Magic pyramid might look like this:
Fair (+2): Evocation 
Average (+1): Invocation, Transmutation
Three slots in your pyramid, three schools of magic.

If you have Great (+4) Magic, you have skill in all schools of magic -- a wizard's wizard, who puts the study of the magical arts above all else. That might look like this:
Great (+4): Evocation
Good (+3): Invocation, Transmutation 
Fair (+2): Enchantment, Divination, Abjuration
Average (+1): Conjuration, Necromancy, Illusion
When you cast a spell, you don't roll your Magic skill -- you roll your specialty skill. So if you're casting a fireball, you'd roll your Great (+4) Evocation. If you're casting phantasmal killer, you'd roll your Average (+1) Illusion. Etc. Probably the only time you'd roll Magic is to know stuff in general about magic.

What do these specialties do? Give 'em some Fate Core actions, as appropriate. No need to define them more than that. Evocation overcomes by blowing stuff up, creates advantages by blowing stuff up, and attacks by blowing stuff up.

This is the part that goes rather completely crazy, in my opinion. Once you have this secondary pyramid, you make a tertiary pyramid for each of these schools of magic. What's in these skill pyramids? Not skills -- spells. Since this is already so AD&D-heavy anyway, open up your PHB and take your spells right from there.

So for Evocation, this wizard's wizard above would have 10 Evocation spells, rated from +1 to +4. For Divination, they'd have three spells. And so on.

Yeah! You're right! That is a lot of spells to keep track of. An ungainly number. It's ridiculous! See, I told you it was crazy. It's more a thought exercise than anything else.

There are a couple more reasonable approaches to this. One is to make the schools individual skills (instead of specialties), and then make spells the specialties. E.g., you have Good (+3) Evocation, which means you can have a Good (+3) Fireball, Fair (+2) Burning Hands and Melf's Acid Arrow, etc.

Another way is to ditch the whole "school" thing and instead go with types of magic, like Fire, Water, Air, Earth, and Death or something. Each of those is a skill, and spells are specialties -- but probably not cribbed from AD&D. I'd make them player-defined, then build the spells as custom skills in the style of Atomic Robo. Maybe you have n points to spend on making those spells, where n is determined by your skill rating.

(BTW, if you're an ARRPG playtester and any of the above reminds you of modes, it's sheer coincidence.)

This has nothing to do with skill sub-pyramids, but: Another way to go would be to have spells as stunts, possibly as stunts you could swap out via some sort of spellbook mechanism. So whether have you have schools of magic as skills or specialties, you can roll Evocation, Abjuration, and Divination all day long to do whatever it is you do with those schools (according to their actions), but then you might also have stunts that stretch those boundaries a bit. For example:
Fireball: When attacking with Evocation, spend a fate point to affect everyone in the targeted zone.
Shield: +2 to Abjuration when defending against physical attacks.
Discern Location: Spend a fate point and specify one creature you've seen or object you've touched. You know the location of that creature or object unerringly and in exacting detail, even if it's on another continent, planet, or plane of existence.
 Anyway. Back to Robo.


Paul Chapman said...

Wouldn't the 2ndary pyramids have the effect of making the characters *less* badass? It gives them more bits to track, and less effectiveness when they choose an action.

Declan Feeney said...

This bit is fantastic and got me thinking: "Another way to go would be to have spells as stunts, possibly as stunts you could swap out via some sort of spellbook mechanism."

One of my favourite characters of all time is Modular Man from the Wildcards series ( If I was creating him I'd have to tweak this to read:
Another way to go would be to have power modules as stunts, possibly as stunts you could swap out via some sort of workshop mechanism.

That liitle idea - stunts you can swap in and out if filled with awesome.

Now lets stick with Wildcards and think about how we'd deal with Croyd Crenson ( - a character where we would swap stunt/aspect packages each time he slpet, but keep a static core set.

Theres a lot of fun to be had here :)

Can we create apect/stunt packages for Bruce Banner and the Hulk? How about Jekyll and Hyde? When the Power Rangers combined were they better than the sum of their aspects? Maybe I'd better stop there. I think I'm getting a little off track ;)

Arashi said...


It isn't so much that they are less badass, but that there's more mechanical distinctions and subtleties of flavor.

If the game is about magic/swordfighting/driving, and the max everyone can take is +4, and everyone takes +4, then the game becomes, well mechanically uninteresting in my view in drawing distinctions between the players.

I suppose if you wanted to play merry hell with the ladder, you could treat the secondary ladder as situational bonuses - that it would be, to use the given example, Magic + Evocation to see how good you were at blasting things (in this case, +8), but that would be very, very game breaking.

Jonathan Grimm said...

I think you've got a diamond in the rough here. It would take some testing. Maybe start the specialty pyramid lower (-2 or so ) and use it as bonuses, or start it one higher and let it replace the skill, so now you have a specialty that you can do a little better, two others at your "general" level. The pyramid may not go down all the way to +1 to reduce tracking.

Paul Chapman said...


Disclaimer: no judgements here! I'm just hitting an idea and seeing what falls out.

You say "mechanical distinctions" and I hear "complexity." Not a goal for me when I chose Fate.

Subtleties of flavor would be better fielded, for me, by adding more aspects: add one aspect for each level of Swordfighting/Magic/Driving you have.

I've never run a game with a theme so narrow the characters felt they needed to all put the same skill on the apex. Almost did with S7S, but maybe my group is odd in its instinctive niche protection.

Adding aspects to skills . . . now that's something to think about.

Tom Miskey said...

This is similar to what I did for magic in Spirits of Steam and Sorcery, but the pyramid form gave too much benefit for taking Sorcery as an Apex skill vs a lower skill. A Great Sorcery gave 4+3+3+2+2+2+1+1+1+1= 20 additional points, while taking it at Average gave just 1 point.

But these aren't additional skills, they don't necessarily need to follow the exact same rules, so I went with "1 point per skill rank to spend on Lores". A Great Sorcery gives you 4 points, an Average gives you 1. Those 4 points can all be spent on 1 Lore or divided around (3 and 1, 2 and 2, 4 1's) giving a choice of narrow but powerful or broad and weaker.

Jeffrey Fuller said...

You sir, need to get out of my head.

I was talking to one of my D&D players yesterday about how to do "classes" with Fate Core. My solution was similar, but in the other direction.

Rather than using the skill as the maximum value, I made it the floor. To hold the +5 cap I used smaller pyramids. So, rather than 1-5, they are only 1-3. For example, whatever your +3 skill is, it unlocks a pyramid of 3-5.

This way, you have built in "multiclassing" in the base pyramid, with relevant class skills going off into their own pyramids.

Guy Bowring said...

(scribbling) Will definitely be looking at this later on tonight... There goes another night's sleep!